“I burned out so badly it took me 2 years to recover…”
“…here’s what it taught me.”
At the end of my four-and-a-half years of studying to be a naturopath in Australia, I could hardly get off my sofa. At 28 years old I was completely and utterly exhausted after working three to four days most weeks and going to and from college three days a week, as well as doing the extra work needed to complete assignments. It took me the next two years to feel like I was recovered.
While I never had the sudden and often very severe rupture in my physical and mental health that is associated with burnout, I fitted the picture very nicely.
I was a high achiever who was used to digging deep and extending myself beyond my limits every day. I was a perfectionist with a pathological need to do well: good enough wasn’t good enough at that time, nor had it ever been. So, I stayed up late to get assignments completed to the level that was acceptable to me. I said yes to shifts at the health food store where I worked, even though it meant I’d be under more pressure for deadlines. I missed meals because I had so much packed into my schedule, and then I ate sugar to keep on keeping on as my energy levels plummeted when I had gone too long without sustenance.
Looking back this modus operandi wasn’t new. Throughout my teens I had worked hard at grammar school in Wiltshire to achieve high grades and played hard both on the sports field and at weekends. I completed work experience to enhance my CV. I was also very serious about making the world a better place and so I channelled that desire into collecting signatures for various causes including animal cruelty.
It never occurred to me that I might need to offset the seriousness of my outlook, my academic striving, sporting achievements and my earnest desire to make the world a better place. That there needed to be a balance between always doing things for a purpose and doing things for no reason other than pure enjoyment; or indeed simply doing nothing at all. The only time I did nothing was on the rare occasion I fell sick. I certainly had a lot of low-grade symptoms, like a progressively irritable gut, terrible mood swings, swollen lymph nodes and fairly regular tonsilitis, but none of those were serious enough to stop me unwittingly running myself into the ground collecting external accolades.
My busyness hid the increasing feelings of exhaustion until my physical, mental and emotional reservoirs had run dry and I found myself in a crisis of my own making. By which time my thyroid was seriously under-functioning and the rest of my system was in disarray. I couldn’t even lift the duvet on our bed and my dreams of helping others seemed unrealisable.
However, thanks to the support of a naturopath – a health practitioner who applies natural therapies – the empathy and love of my husband and my own innate curiosity, I slowly clambered out of that deep rut and now, almost 20 years later, I am flourishing more and more.
On the journey back from burnout I learned that nourishing my body and my needs has to be my priority; that to reposition myself at the heart of my priorities doesn’t mean I am neglecting others or being inconsiderate. It allows me to be at my best, the majority of the time and, if I am flourishing physically, mentally and emotionally, then those around me get to experience the best of me too.
I learned that saying “No” to some things isn’t unkind but teaches others how I want to be treated and in doing that I am celebrating and strengthening my own boundaries.
I learned how to enhance my ability to withstand the stresses and strains of life by adjusting my internal response to the events of life. Improving response to stress and nourishing body to give it more of what it needs.
I learned that I am physically energetic and emotionally joyful when I nourish my body with natural foods and eat to feed my cells rather than catering to my tastebuds all the time.
Now, in my work as a naturopath based in Perthshire, Scotland, where I live with my husband and two children, I share the lessons I learned with other women to help them flourish too. At 47 I know not to overdo it and my work-life balance is perfect for me. I’m achieving what I want to professionally but I’m not paying the cost personally.
I have learned that if I choose to waste time then it isn’t time wasted. I don’t need to feel guilty for doing nothing, or feel lazy if I’m not running around relentlessly. Crucially, I have finally learned to position my health and happiness before my productivity.